By Megan Kallus
The higher education system in the U.S. is undergoing a painful transformation.
The New York Times reported that nationwide college enrollment numbers have dropped for the first time in decades as the system undergoes a contraction. Some smaller private colleges and universities are being forced to close their doors.
However, at the same time, elite universities are posting record application numbers and all-time-low acceptance rates.
Stanford University accepted just 5.1 percent of applicants this admissions season from a pool of 42,167 applicants. Acceptance rates of similarly ranked universities fall within a few percentage points of Stanford’s numbers. Harvard and Yale accepted about 6 percent of applicants, and MIT accepted around 8 percent.
The University of Chicago has witnessed one of the steepest drops in admission rates. Just a few years ago, the school had an acceptance rate of 40 percent. This admissions season, the University of Chicago accepted only 8.1 percent of applicants.
While the New York Daily News reported that Long Island high school student Kwasi Enin was accepted into all eight Ivy League universities, his admissions case is an extreme outlier. As acceptance rates at private, highly selective universities continue to plummet, the college admissions process is becoming more expensive, complicated and unpredictable.
Applications to private universities can cost anywhere from $65 to $85 without fee waivers, and students are applying to more schools.
Isaac Madrid — a California prep school student profiled in the New York Times — said he applied to 11 colleges. Madrid was rejected at Stanford but accepted to Yale, which boasts nearly identical rankings and acceptance rates. His approach reflects that of many high-achieving students.
This makes one wonder why the admission process has become more competitive.
Popular rankings like the U.S. News & World Report’s annual “Best College Rankings” plays a major role. Factors such as admissions selectivity and peer reputation are weighted heavily in the rankings. Elite universities began to push harder to attract a larger pool of applicants in order to improve their standings.
The University of Chicago provides an interesting example of the recent competitive trend. In 2009, UC hired a new admissions officer with the hopes of improving its rankings.
UC doubled its admissions staff and embarked on a massive publicity campaign. The admissions team sent out mailings to a huge pool of students and switched to widely accessible online application systems like the Common Application. UC received so many applications that its acceptance rate dropped 26 percent in six years. UC ranks at number five on the U.S. News and World Report list.
These tumbling admissions rates are feeding a vicious cycle of competitive admissions.
According to The New York Times, admissions directors at many elite institutions claim that they receive a high volume of qualified applicants that causes them to turn down candidates virtually indistinguishable from those who are accepted.
Bruce Poch, a former admissions dean at Claremont College, spoke to The New York Times about this growing problem.
“Kids see that admit rates are brutal and dropping, and it looks more like a crapshoot,” Poch said. “So they send more apps, which forces colleges to lower their admit rates, which spurs the kids next year to send even more apps.”
Fortunately, there is some good news for students intimidated by the increasingly cutthroat college admissions process.
The quality of education offered at large public universities has steadily improved during the years. Public colleges like UH offer an attractive alternative to the cutthroat admissions process at private, elite universities.
Director of Student Recruitment at the UH Office of Admissions Jeffrey Fuller suggests why the admission process at UH has been successful.
“The University of Houston admission process is transparent, and that helps students, families and educators in their navigation,” Fuller said.
The University’s admissions practices run counter to increasingly opaque and confusing college admissions practices.
“Our process is straight-forth and encourages students to apply and complete their admission early to benefit from priorities essential in the enrollment process — such as new student orientation, housing, enrollment and scholarships and financial aid,” Fuller said.
Biology sophomore Patricia de Guzman agrees with Fuller’s assessment.
“The UH admissions process was really easy,” de Guzman said. “I was able to use ApplyTexas system to submit my application, and it was never stressful.”
Fuller said UH’s admissions philosophy is to attract “academically prepared students” who are interested in “preparing for global opportunities.”
UH accepts about 56.2 percent of applicants and hosts top-ranked programs ranging from hotel and restaurant management to entrepreneurship.
Another selling point may be the financial edge. PolicyMic ranked UH a top “Bang for your buck” college. UH’s strengths shine with low student debt, high average starting salaries and top programs.
In addition, UH offers prospective students the amenities of both STEM-focused research universities and small liberal arts colleges.
Compared to UH, elite liberal arts colleges have experienced admission trends more similar to those at Stanford and UC. Pomona, Amherst, Williams and other private liberal arts colleges reported acceptance rates between 10 to 20 percent.
UH has its own Honors College, which is similar structurally to liberal arts schools. The Honors College practices a holistic admissions process, offers a variety of humanities courses and seminars and fosters a tight-knit academic community.
Pre-nursing sophomore Miriam Acosta recognizes the amenities UH has to offer.
“UH is a large public school, but that means that I’ve had the freedom to challenge myself academically and the opportunity to pursue all kinds of activities,” Acosta said.
Prospective applicants should not have to feel intimidated by the college application process. The admissions cycle at Ivy League universities might seem frightening, but there are far more than eight worthwhile colleges in the U.S.
“While much attention is often given to who gets in and where,” Fuller said, “the message that continues to ring true is that there is a space for every student ready to transition to college.” (The New York Times)